I’m going to talk about something uncomfortable, that a lot of #Aspies go through. Trigger warnings all over the place! This is your warning. Leave now if you aren’t in a space to handle this kind of talk.
….Still here? Okay then.
Suicide attacks (the personal kind, not the terrorist kind) and depression attacks are recognised phenomena. They’re akin to panic attacks and anxiety attacks: A sudden, overwhelming surge of emotion, usually triggered by an event, that completely swamps the person’s ability to control it. Although recognised, suicide attacks are not well known because they’re seldom talked about. Not many people admit to having suicide attacks, partly because of the fear of being sectioned. Since suicide attacks are usually over just as suddenly as they appear, hospitalisation can be rather pointless. Although many NT people also have suicide attacks and they are also a common feature in bipolar disorder, I’m going to discuss them from the Aspergers perspective.
Suicide attacks are unlike ‘regular’ suicidal ideation, which develops over time, usually in response to a chronic situation. ‘Regular’ ideation usually has a logic to it and quite often a ‘hint chain’ leading up to an attempt. In contrast, suicide attacks are sudden and impulsive. They’re also silent - a person in the grip of an attack may talk about anything but what they’re thinking. Friends may have no idea that a person is in the grip of a suicide attack, they may think their friend is just overly upset. Suicide attacks are very embarrassing, so the person is unlikely to talk about it once the attack is over; friends and family may never know about it. And as mentioned, the person is unlikely to disclose the attack to a therapist.
Suicide attacks is the worst kind of meltdown there is. They’re triggered, they’re sudden, and they’re silent: These qualities can make suicide attacks especially dangerous. A person who makes an attempt while in the grip of an attack is much more likely to succeed.
Here’s the thing: They usually know it. Usually, the person having a suicide attack is quite aware that they’re thinking and acting irrationally, but - and this is vitally important to understand - they’re powerless to stop. They literally can’t stop these overwhelming thoughts and feelings. If they have alexythemia (as many of us do), they may not even know what it is that they’re feeling - what they do know is that the gyroscope of their world is spinning wildly off-kilter and they’re at risk of being flung off.
They also usually want to live, but the power of the attack prevents them from seeing any routes out of their immediate situation. Something has tripped their amygdalae to go into hyperdrive and now they’re awash in adrenaline, cortisol and other threat-response hormones and the calm-down switch is on the fritz. As long as the attack is overwhelming them, they can’t engage their troubleshooting mind. Overwhelmed and drowning, they may reach out, looking for any rock to cling to until the storm passes.
How the friend reacts can make or break the situation… but hang on, Catch-22 here - how do you know how to react, when you don’t know that the person is having an attack? Yep, it’s a conundrum alright, so here’s the quick and dirty list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to handling a very upset friend with AS who needs to hear a voice in the night.
Stay calm. This is vitally important: The person having an attack needs a calm, centred friend. The friend’s calm state communicates to the upset person’s hyper-stimulated amygdalae, communicating that there is no threat, it’s safe to calm down.
If you’re AS yourself, this won’t be so difficult because the situation engages your natural state of being: Your friend has a problem and has turned to you for help. If you’re an NT, things may be a little different: The natural response of most NTs is to try to get the person to talk about what’s upsetting them, right away, so that they can align their emotions with those of their upset friend. Fight that instinct, especially if you suspect that your friend might be in the grip of an attack. It is vitally important that you not become engaged with your friend’s emotions — they’re counting on you to be the calm center that they can cling to.
Talk about anything else. This one is more difficult for both AS and NT people, because both immediately want to talk about what’s wrong. The AS person wants to trouble-shoot the problem and look for solutions; the NT person wants to sympathise with their upset friend to make them feel better. However, a person having a suicide attack won’t talk about the problem right away and trying to pressure them to do so could backfire. If your upset friend doesn’t want to talk about it yet, back off and talk about something else. Do you have fandoms in common? Hobbies? Have you seen any good movies/read any good books lately? Did your pet do something silly today? — Anything, I mean anything.
By staying calm and talking about anything else, you send a message to the upset person’s amygdalae telling them that the threat has passed, that they’re safe. Your friend needs that. Just keep talking.
Be objective. Eventually, your friend may calm down enough to talk about what’s upset them. An AS person will want to analyse the situation and look for what they did wrong. An AS friend can help here because of shared cognitive style and the natural trouble-shooting mind, but may not be aware of some subtleties if the situation involved conflict with another person. The NT cognitive style is usually to solve the emotional aspects first, so an NT friend’s instinct may be to support the AS friend. However, the upset AS person is usually convinced that they’ve done something wrong.
In this situation, the best approach is to deconstruct the situation and look for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions on both sides. Then, tell the upset AS friend what they did right, FIRST. Next, if there is anything the AS person did ‘wrong’, tell them what they might do differently for next time. Be positive — remember, for many of us, we haven’t been allowed to make mistakes and it’s really hard on our self-esteem when we screw up.
Don’t ask! If you do suspect that maybe your upset friend is having a suicide attack, don’t ask about it! They will most likely deny it and they will get even more upset. Worst of all, they will not likely turn to you again. They may even start to distance themselves from you because they no longer feel that level of trust that brought them to you in the first place.
Be patient. It may take a long time for your friend to come down safely, sometimes hours. Stay calm, keep talking. Follow their lead; if they need you to go back to talking about anything, go back to talking about anything. You are their lighthouse, guiding them out of the storm and into safe harbour. This may or may not be the time to try techniques like PMI; their minds may not be able to access that state yet. If not, reassure them that you can talk about more options later. Stay available to them.
Avoid platitudes. Understand this: Your AS friend has chosen to trust you to see them in their absolute worst — if you judge them now, if you tell them they’re over-reacting, if you tell them they’re being ridiculous, if you belittle them in any way, the damage may be irreparable. At best, it can destroy your friendship; at worst, it can destroy your friend. This is a time when they need a friend more than ever and if you let them down now…?
If they ever do admit to you that they’ve had an attack, don’t get upset and don’t say things like ‘but you have so much to live for’ and ‘suicide isn’t the answer,’ please! Yeah thanks, we know that, that’s why we reached out in the first place. Instead, greet the news positively - they’re still here, yeah? For one thing, choosing to tell you that they’ve had an attack is a huge show of their trust in you. So, tell them that you’re glad they’re still here to be your friend. Believe me, they need to hear things like that.
Stay calm. Keep talking. Be the lighthouse. Be the rock that they can cling to.